Covers Sell

Covers Sell

10 Questions for Ken Whyte

Posted by Scott On April - 13 - 2010

Q. Congratulations on being named Canadian Newsperson of the Year.  When you first took the helm at Maclean’s, there were many pundits and bloggers who said that the News Weekly format was dead.  Many were also highly critical of the changes you were making at Maclean’s.  Time Canada is no longer with us.  But Maclean’s newsstand sales have never been better, even at a time when so many magazines in both Canada and the United States have suffered newsstand sales erosion in the past year.   What did you understand, that the critics, the naysayers, and doom-and-gloomers, simply didn’t get?

A. I think if you looked at a narrow category of newsweeklies including Maclean’s, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, the prognosis did look uncertain when I started here five years ago. There were other current affairs publications, however, that were performing quite well. The Economist, The Week, and I would include People magazine, which is current affairs of a particular sort, they were all posting newsstand gains. I figured that the problem wasn’t current affairs per se but that tired newsweekly format best exemplified by Time. I hoped that if we abandoned the format and found a new voice for Maclean’s — something more urgent, lively, and provocative — that there would still be room for us on the newsstand. So far that’s proved to be the case.

Q. In a podcast for Magazines Canada discussing Run of Press Ads, I noted that in your office you had an entire wall covered with Maclean’s covers, and on each one was posted the number of copies sold. Tell us why you do that?

A. For several reasons.  Newsstand is our most immediate barometer of our relationship with our audience.  If we’re producing a relevant, compelling magazine, our newsstand results should be good so we watch those results closely. I keep the covers on the wall as a reminder that it’s all about the reader, and that we need to keep trying to improve our sales in order to expand and deepen our relationship with our audience. We also pay close attention to what’s working and what isn’t working, and we look for patterns in our successes and failures. We’re also competitive, and we like to beat our own best, and to post consistently higher results.

Q. What are your three favourite covers you’ve done at Maclean’s, and tell us why?

A. I love what we did on Hurricane Katrina, “The Drowning of New Orleans.” It was a beautiful cover, an amazing story, and it proved to us that we could succeed with international stories, which Maclean’s had more or less banished from the cover in previous years. I liked “Why do we dress our daughters like skanks?” because it demonstrated the power of frank language and a direct, provocative line, and it was also, I think, the point at which a lot of people outside the magazine’s traditional audience began to notice that it was speaking with a different voice. Right now I’m in love with our Olympic special issue. It’s on track to sell more than 130,000 copies at $9.95, which pushes it beyond our Pierre Trudeau and Princess Diana commemorative issues as our all-time bestseller. We also used a white border on the Olympic special and it’s growing on me. We’re thinking about re-designing the cover in that direction.

Q. You’ve created a number of amazing Special Interest Publications.  Tell us why you do them, what makes them work, and what you love about them?

A. They’re all different, which is one of the reasons they’re fun. Our Michael Jackson SIP and our annual University Guide are at opposite ends of the current affairs spectrum, but they were both successful. We do them to fill a public demand and to make money. Things like the Michael Jackson issue, or another we did on the death of Pope John Paul, depend for success on high degrees of public interest – the best ones seem to be personality driven. Others, like the University Guide, rely on their utility. We plan to do a lot more SIPs in the year ahead.

Q. And it’s not just newsstand is it?  When you took the helm at Maclean’s, grace copies, according to ABC data, had peeked at 21,435 copies per issue.  Today, you are only gracing 2,722 copies per issue. As a weekly, the print and postage bill for grace copies must have been enormous.  It appears that you have systematically and relentlessly been working down those “free copies”.  Can we expect to see the grace number reach zero soon?

A. We have indeed been working that number down. Thanks for noticing. I don’t think we can get that number much lower because we need to give a certain number of copies free to clients, suppliers, and my many bosses at Rogers. We also had about 60,000 public place copies when I started. We got no revenue from them at all. We’ve been working hard at replacing non-paying copies with real subscriptions that come directly from paying customers. That’s where the money is. We’ve increased our proportion of direct-to-publisher subscriptions by more than 50% over the last four years, and that has made a tremendous difference to our bottom line.

Q. At a recent industry event hosted by CDS Global, Samir Husni (aka Mr. Magazine) talked about “readers that count, instead of counting readers”.  His point was: advertisers can no longer be expected to shoulder all the costs; chasing marginal circulation is not smart; and that readers are in fact willing to pay for a quality magazine that they are addicted to. Do you agree?

A. I couldn’t agree more. Maclean’s (like most magazines) used to treat circulation as a loss leader for its advertising business, which supplied the bulk of our revenue. We were happy to lose money on third-party subscriptions (Publisher’s Clearing House, to name one of many programs) in order to keep our circulation high enough to justify our ad rates. But the ad market isn’t what it used to be and our subscription business has been improving markedly. We’ve not only increased our number of direct subscribers but we’ve raised prices three times. Circulation now accounts for about 60% of revenue at Maclean’s. We still care about our advertising business, but we now understand that when we get the consumer side of the business right we’re a much healthier magazine.

Q. Name three U.S. Magazines and three Canadian Magazines that you look to for inspiration with respect to Covers…who’s doing it right?

A. Honestly, I don’t have particular favourites. They change week to week and month to month. And when I look for inspiration I tend to look backwards. I’ve got a good collection of Time from the forties, some Maclean’s from the sixties, and a bunch of odds and ends — New Republic from the Michael Kinsley era, the Spectator from the nineties, old Colliers, Esquire, etc. I do like what Oprah is doing now. Her cover language is brilliant.

Q. In light of the recent Ann Colter incident at Ottawa University, you must be particularly proud of your victory over the BC Human Rights Commission, and the threats these bodies pose to free expression both in Canadian journalism and at Canada’s academic institutions.   Maclean’s has taken a leadership role at defending free speech in Canada.  Do you sense that the tide is turning?

A. The Colter incident demonstrates that there are still a lot of people who want to define certain species of political speech as deviant and hateful. I don’t see a turning tide. I see the bottom of a swamp.

Q. In your book, The Uncrowned King, you outline how Hearst invested in quality writers, cartoonists, editors, art directors.  You point out his commitment to strong investigative journalism, to cutting-edge design and layout.  You point out that he tried to create a paper that demanded attention.  You point out that he charged for his paper, and did not give it away for free, and that he was very successful at circulation…you might say he was a master at “audience development.”  When people say that magazines are a dying medium, you response is?

A. Magazines will be around as long as there is an audience for them, and whether or not there is an audience for them depends largely on the quality of the content. If we have nothing compelling to say to people, we deserve to die. I’m optimistic that a lot of publishers, faced with advertising challenges, are going to focus more on their readers, to the benefit of the industry.

Q. How important is quality packaging with respect to both newsstand sales, and, more importantly, for the long term survival of the fittest magazines?

A. In magazine terms, the package is the cover. The cover is where we most directly promote our contents and lure readers. Covers need to sell hard if we want an audience. Hearst used to say that publishing without promotion is like winking at a girl in the dark — well intentioned but futile.

2 Responses to “10 Questions for Ken Whyte”

  1. Scott says:

    Thanks. Ken gets it.

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About Me

Scott Bullock is a veteran circulation expert with over 38 years experience in both Canada and the United States. He has worked on trade titles such as Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal and Small Press in the USA. In consumer magazines, Scott was the Circulation Director for D Magazine (the city magazine of Dallas, Texas), and in Canada he was the Circulation Director for Toronto Life, Fashion, and Canadian Art. From 2000 to 2004, Scott was a partner at Coast to Coast Newsstand Services. Scott has also held the post of VP Sales & Marketing, for CDS Global, Canada. Currently, CoversSell.Com is Scott’s circulation consultancy. Active clients include: Fly Fusion, Canadian Geographic, Canadian House & Home, Canada’s History, Canadian Real Estate Wealth, Canadian Woodworking, Canadian Cycling, Canadian Running, Canadian Scrapbooker, Legion, Harrowsmith, SkyNews, and SuperTrax.

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